Born in 1759 in Joinville, Haute-Marne in the Champagne-Ardenne region in France, François Devienne (1759-1803) was among the most significant composers of wind music in the second half of the eighteenth century. He probably received his earliest musical training from Morizot, the organist in Joinville, and continued his education with his elder brother and godfather, François Memmie, in Deux Ponts (Zweibrücken) from 1776 until May 1778. Little is known about his activities immediately following his departure from Deux Ponts although William Montgomery, the leading authority on Devienne, speculates that he may have spent some time with the Royal Cravate regiment during the following year.
By the autumn of 1779 Devienne was a bassoonist in the orchestra of the Opéra in Paris and studying flute with the orchestra’s principal flautist, Félix Rault, to whom he later dedicated the last of his flute concertos. It is likely that Devienne entered the service of Cardinal de Rohan as a chamber musician in the spring of 1780 where he remained until mid-1785. Like a number of prominent eighteenth-century musicians, he joined the Freemasons and was probably a member of the orchestra of the Loge Olympique during the 1780s in which he would have worked closely with its extraordinary leader, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The earliest performance of record in Paris of a work by Devienne took place on 24 March 1780, when Ozi performed ‘a new Bassoon Concerto composed by de Vienne’ at the Concert Spirituel.
Devienne’s first appearance a soloist occurred two years later when on 24 December 1782 he performed ‘a new flute concerto’, probably his Flute Concerto No.1 in D, at the Concert Spirituel. On 25 March 1784 he appeared for the first time as a bassoon soloist playing his Bassoon Concerto No.1. From 1782 to 1785 Devienne appeared at the Concert Spirituel as a soloist on at least eighteen occasions but after 3 April 1785 he did perform there again for another four years. His place of employment during this period is uncertain but it is possible that he may have been at Versailles as a member of the Band of the Swiss Guards.
Les spectacles de Paris 1790 listed Devienne as the second bassoonist of the Théâtre de Monsieur (later the Théâtre Feydeau) when it opened in January 1789 which suggests that he probably returned to Paris in the autumn or early winter of 1788. Within a year he had secured the position of Principal Bassoon which he held until April 1801. His first known solo appearance after his return to Paris was at the Concert Spirituel on 7 April 1789, when he played the flute part in the première of his Sinfonie concertante No.4. In the autumn of 1790 he joined the military band of the Paris National Guard where his duties included teaching music to the children of French soldiers. This organization officially became the Free School of Music of the National Guard in 1792 and Devienne was one of the three sergeants in its administration with an annual salary of 1100 livres, five times the amount he was receiving at the Théâtre de Monsieur. The Free School, renamed the National Institute of Music in 1793, became the Paris Conservatoire in 1795.
Devienne’s opéra comique, Le mariage clandestin was staged at the newly estabished Théâtre Montansier in November 1791 and two more of his operas were staged there before his most popular opera, Les visitandines (1792), was performed at the Théâtre Feydeau. That work was among the most successful operas of the Revolutionary period receiving over 200 performances in Paris between 1792 and 1797.
As a direct result of his teaching experience at The Free School, Devienne wrote a method for the one-keyed flute that was published in 1794. This well-known work contains information on flute techniques and performance practice as well as flute duets of progressive difficulty. When the Paris Conservatoire was established the following year, Devienne was appointed one of its nine elected administrators and Professor of Flute (First Class) with an annual salary of 5000 livres. After 1795 three more of his operas were staged, and he occupied himself with his duties in the Théâtre Feydeau orchestra and at the Conservatoire. Devienne seems to have been an excellent teacher and five of his students won prizes at the Conservatoire between 1797 and 1801; one, Joseph Guillou, was later appointed Professor of Flute.
The Théâtre Feydeau closed its doors on 12 April 1801 and the following September its orchestra merged with that of the Théâtre Favart to form the new Opéra-Comique orchestra. Devienne’s involvement with the new orchestra is uncertain and it is possible that his declining health prevented him from working. In May 1803 he entered Charenton, a Parisian home for the mentally ill, where he died the following September after a long illness. The obituary in the Courrier des Spectacles of 9 September 1803, written by Devienne’s sixteen-year-old student “Guion fils”, reads:
Citizen François Devienne died the eighteenth of this month in the house of Charenton, where he had been for four months under the care of the people of that art, who, in spite of all their efforts, were not able to cure him from a mental derangement which had degenerated into true madness, caused by the various sorrows which he had experienced during the Revolution…
At the age of ten years he composed a Mass which was played by the musicians of the Royal Gravatte, where he then was, which foretold of his natural disposition for the art of music… Death comes to carry him away at the age of forty-three; he takes with him the esteem and the regrets of the artists and his friends. He leaves in grief a wife and five children, of whom four are of tender years.
The government has already placed one at the Lycée de Bruxelles; one hopes that it will not forget the others in the repayment of his services.
Student of Devienne at the Conservatory of Music